Today, June 23, 2012, marks the one hundred year anniversary of the birth of British mathematician Alan Turing.
Turing is often regarded as the father of modern computer science, and perhaps more accurately, the person who defined what a “computing device” actually is. While a student at Cambridge in the 1930s, he had developed and published a paper on the concept now known as the Turing Machine, an abstract formalism describing a general purpose, mechanical computing device.
During the Second World War, he was one of a number of brilliant people sequestered at Britian’s now famed Bletchley Park (sometimes called “Britain’s best kept secret”), working on Ultra, an attempt to break the Nazi’s notorious Enigma code. While engaged in this life-or-death effort that ultimately saw success in breaking the German code, greatly accelerating the end of the war, and saving countless thousands of lives, Turing directly lead or influenced the construction of a number of computational machines, most notably the Bombe, and Colossus.
These were not general purpose computers, as we know them now, but rather highly purpose-built ciphers which attempted to accelerate the efforts of the Bletchley Park code breakers. Unfortunately, almost all of the original machines were destroyed at the end of the war, out of security concerns, but a number have been recreated since.
[ In 1996, I had a consulting engagement with Mercury Communications Ltd., at a location adjacent to Bletchley Park, and was honored to had been given a personal tour of the "Colossus rebuild project", which at the time, had a partially reconstructed Colossus machine up and running, with one or two of the original BP personnel working on it. Needless to say, as a professional computer scientist and technologist, this was one of the more profound personal events of my career. ]
Turing continued his research in computation following the war, most notably at the University of Manchester, where he was instrumental in building a number of early, general purpose computers. He also devised the now famous Turing test at this time, a purely functional criteria for deciding whether or not some particular machine thinks like a human, without necessarily having to prove the machine capable of any form of introspection.
But the post war years weren’t very kind to Alan Turing, who lived relatively openly as a gay man. In 1952, he was convicted of “gross indecency” for having a relationship with another man, and was offered hormonal therapy as an alternative to being sent to prison. Turing subsequently died in 1954, by his own hand, after biting an apple laced with cyanide. The indecency law itself was finally repealed in 1967, and a formal apology made by the British government in 2009. But attempts to get Alan Turing’s conviction legally overturned posthumously have not yet succeeded, and are still being pursued.
The great tragedy of Alan Turing’s story, of course, is that here’s some one whose life’s work immeasurably benefited all of us, whether we realize it or not. He greatly contributed to turning the war effort around, then went on to provide us with the basis for modern computation. Yet, he was to be criminalized and plunged into despair during his later years, and still remains a convicted criminal in 2012, long after his death, all for the benefit of those who once clung to some antiquated notions of “decency”. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to posthumously wish Alan Turing a “happy 100th birthday”, given all that’s transpired. But we can, and should, always uphold his memory and his significant contributions to humankind, and do our best to finally cast off those medieval habits of thought that ultimately led to one great man’s highly undeserved downfall.
Alan Turing Centenary Committee Home Page:
Alan Turing Centenary twitter stream: Alan Turing Year